The announcement that Pierre Gauthier was fired as GM of the Montreal Canadiens came with the same odd sense of timing that marked the man’s tenure as architect of one of hockey’s most storied franchises. The only way the dismissal could have been more apt is if owner Geoff Molson announced it two hours before a game (the way Gauthier fired assistant coach Perry Pearn) or halfway through a game (the way Gauthier traded Mike Cammalleri).
Calling the Gauthier Era a gong show is an affront to both gongs and shows. He was the worst choice possible for a modern-day NHL fishbowl, a man whose hockey acumen was overshadowed by his transparent discomfort with the media and transparency in general. So deeply ensconced in his bubble was Gauthier, he willingly traded an expiring contract in Jaroslav Spacek for Tomas Kaberle’s bloated deal that has two more seasons on it. Gauthier was so utterly bereft of understanding the French-Canadian media’s influence, he honestly thought he could fire Jacques Martin and install an Anglophone (poor Randy Cunneyworth) without anybody batting a lash.
More importantly, as the public face of the franchise, Gauthier’s pained disposition put him behind the eight-ball (huit-ball?) virtually from the start. He was an extension of the Bob Gainey regime, but Gainey’s similar countenance was easily forgiven by Habs fans who never could forget his legendary on-ice contributions.
Gauthier had none of that armor to protect him from a backslide in the team’s performance and the (correct) sense he was constantly pushing the panic button this season, to the point the button busted. While some Montreal observers expected a playoff spot to be a certainty, others (including me) saw a group that had many of its post-season eggs in the basket resting on Andrei Markov’s wonky right knee – and when the veteran defenseman missed 68 games because of it, the Canadiens didn’t have enough depth or talent to steer them through rough waters.
Had Gauthier taken a reasonable look at his depth chart – or had Molson come to his senses earlier than he did Thursday – there would have been an acknowledgement of the building Montreal still had to do to be considered a bona fide Stanley Cup contender. Instead, Gauthier stubbornly added mid-tier veterans such as Kaberle (who carries a cap hit of $4.25 million until 2013-14) and Rene Bourque (under contract until 2015-16 and traded for Mike Cammalleri, whose contract expires two seasons earlier), while throwing people like Pearn and Martin overboard. It was like having a house on fire and the firemen responding by spraying the blaze with gasoline and fireworks. But Molson allowed it to happen, so ultimately, he shares in the blame for the damage Gauthier did on his way out the door.
Now, the focus turns to who will replace Gauthier. There will be those who suggest a tried-and-true veteran GM with an NHL championship on his resume is the answer, but as we’re seeing with the Canadiens’ arch-rivals in Toronto, that’s no guarantee of success. Instead, my preference would be for ownership to take a long, hard look at someone such as Leafs assistant GM Claude Loiselle or Tampa Bay’s Julien BriseBois.
Both men are diligent workers who’ve paid their dues and, most crucially, they’ve got extensive expertise in managing the salary cap, an attribute Gauthier’s adventures have made an absolute necessity to have in his replacement. BriseBois and Loiselle also don’t come off as if they’d rather perform a Brazilian wax on themselves than speak to the media. As Gauthier has demonstrated, that’s very important as well.
Regardless of who takes the Canadiens’ reins, the new brass must restore a sense of calm and dignity to the organization. Under Gauthier, the franchise became Distraction Central, a reality-proofed region where the best of intentions went to die. If that doesn’t improve, its place in the standings won’t, either.
When the Habs were stacking up Cups, they were class personified. Unfortunately for Gauthier, his legacy leaves Montreal in dire need of class classes.
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